Austrian Social Democrats chose a new chancellor and party leader

15.05.20161,055
Christian Kern will have to find solutions and offer compromises not only on social and economic issues, but also for the partner in the ruling coalition. Credits: APA

Christian Kern will have to find solutions and offer compromises not only on social and economic issues, but also for the partner in the ruling coalition. Credits: APA

13 May. — The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), one of Austria’s two ruling parties, unanimously approved the nomination of Christian Kern as their new leader. It is expected that next week he will be officially confirmed to the post of head of government. The party is banking on the new leader to restore its internal unity and regain the confidence of society. However, combatting differences by means of furthering a split is hardly likely to help the SPÖ truly come together.

In the first round of presidential elections, held on 24 April, the Social Democratic Party’s candidate Rudolf Hundstorfer won only 11.3% of the votes, coming in fourth place. These disastrous results played a decisive role in the growth and consolidation of the opposition to Werner Faymann, the party leader at that time and the country’s chancellor since 2008. It is namely on him that all responsibility was placed for every misfortune of recent times, including the growth of the unemployment rate and unsurmountable disagreements over the issues of uncontrolled immigration and pensions funding.

However, the subject of public controversy was initially only the date of the next SPÖ congress. It had been scheduled for autumn, but after 24 April many in the party were in favour of moving the date forward. This was attributed to the necessity for immediately developing a new course of action. Gradually, the voices of those openly calling for Faymann’s resignation grew louder and louder.

The “dissenters” were the leaders of the regional divisions. In early May, it became clear that their numbers had reached the point where they could no longer be disregarded. This is why the chancellor met with them in Vienna on 9 May. Attending the meeting were the heads of five of the nine regional divisions (Salzburg – Walter Steidl, Styria – Michael Schickhofer, Carinthia – Peter Kaiser, Lower Austria – Matthias Stadler, Vorarlberg – Michael Ritsch).

Details of the meeting were not disclosed, but Faymann announced his resignation from all political posts. The Austrian media called his exit unexpected. However, this corresponds poorly with the fact that the candidacy of the favourite, supported from the beginning by the majority of the regional leaders, was announced the very next day. The 50-year-old CEO of Austrian Federal Railways, Christian Kern, was nominated.

His competitor was supposed to be Gerhard Zeiler, the executive director of the private media company RTL. However, it was literally a day later when it was completely clear that only two of the federal lands were prepared to support him: Burgenland and Vienna. Moreover, in the capital, it was Michael Häupl, a close associate of the chancellor, re-elected to his post once again last year; SPÖ deputy chairman; and, it is thought, someone who had been involved in the selection of candidates to ministerial positions.

After Faymann’s resignation, he became the acting leader of the party. He was unable to capitalise on the situation, however. Against his will, the consolidation around Christian Kern took place very rapidlyl.

The news website Vienna.at writes that the victory of the former general director means Häupl’s position has weakened. However, the way things turned out indicate that this was not the outcome of a reshuffling in the party but was instead one of the goals of the “regions’ revolt”.

The regional leaders had been dissatisfied with how close Häupl was to Faymann and his role in the process of selecting and nominating ministers. In their opinion, it was precisely his influence that resulted in individual lands being insufficiently represented in government. As Der Standard reports, now they have the opportunity to lobby for the appointments they need.

Despite the fact that the leaders of regional divisions and membership organisations unanimously supported Kern’s candidacy, serious differences remain within the party as before. They are not hidden, but many hope that the new leader will succeed in smoothing over the discord, using his business qualities and image as a problem-solver and someone capable of finding creative solutions to difficult predicaments.

It is true that alongside restoring internal unity on an intertwined set of social and economic problems, the SPÖ must also resolve the matter of relations with its partner the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The political crisis has propelled both parties into a search for alternatives to each other. Some of the regional leaders of the SPÖ – for example, Michael Ritsch – advocate a coalition with minor parties. On the sidelines, partners have even been discussing the idea of an alliance with right-wing radicals from the Freedom Party, which has been considered taboo for the past thirty years.

The search is moving forward under the slogans about the end of “the grand coalition” and “the time of hesitations”. However, intrigues and the desire for rapid and decisive steps could lead to such serious contradictions that the only way out would be early parliamentary elections. The ruling parties need to stop “practicing harakiri and demonstrate what what they can do”, at least before the 2018 elections, ironised Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen on the new government’s chances.

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